Consequences and children’s behaviour
Consequences are what happens after your child behaves in a certain way. Consequences can influence how your child behaves in the future.
Other consequences make behaviour less likely in the future. These consequences are things your child doesn’t like. They might include the consequences you give your child for challenging behaviour, like time-out, quiet time or loss of privilege.
If your child gets plenty of positive attention, praise, encouragement and rewards for positive behaviour like being cooperative, thinking of others and sticking to rules, you might need to give your child fewer consequences for challenging behaviour.
Sometimes it’s best to let children experience the natural consequences of their own behaviour. This helps them learn that their actions have consequences. They might learn to take responsibility for what they do.
Here are examples of natural consequences that encourage behaviour:
- If your child keeps their room tidy, they can find their toys easily.
- If your child waits for their turn in a game, the game goes more smoothly.
- If your child puts on their shoes, their feet stay clean and dry.
Here are examples of natural consequences that discourage behaviour:
- If your child refuses to put on a coat, your child feels cold.
- If your child won’t eat, your child feels hungry.
- If your child doesn’t complete their homework, your child fails the assignment.
Although natural consequences can be a useful way to guide your child’s behaviour, not all behaviour has a natural consequence.
Also, natural consequences aren’t always appropriate. For example, dangerous or antisocial behaviour could lead to your child or someone else getting hurt. Likewise, regularly not doing schoolwork isn’t good for your child’s learning. In these situations, you can’t just ignore your child’s behaviour. You need to step in to guide your child, which might involve using a different type of consequence.
You might feel bad for your child when they experience negative natural consequences, but try not to say, ‘I told you so’. This won’t help your child learn from the experience. If your child is open to talking, it might be better to say something like, ‘What do you think you could do differently next time?’
Related or logical consequences
A related or logical consequence is a consequence that’s related to the behaviour. For example:
- If your child is being silly and spills their drink, they must wipe it up.
- If your child leaves their bike in the driveway, the bike gets put away for an hour.
- If children are fighting over a toy, the toy is put away for 10 minutes.
Related consequences work best when they’re brief. That way your child soon gets an opportunity to practise the right behaviour, and you can reinforce this behaviour with praise and positive attention.
The advantage of related consequences is they get your child to think about the issue, they feel fairer, and they tend to work better than consequences that aren’t related. But it’s not always easy or possible to find a related consequence.
Other types of consequences: quiet time, time-out and loss of privilege
Other types of consequences include quiet time, time-out and loss of privilege. These consequences aren’t necessarily related to the challenging behaviour. But if you use them well, they give your child the opportunity to stop, think about their behaviour and learn from its consequences.
Quiet time and time-out are when you take your child away from activities and other people for a short period of time. These strategies work well for children aged 3-6 years.
Loss of privilege is taking away a favourite object or activity for a while because of challenging behaviour. It can help children aged 6 years and over learn that their behaviour has consequences. For example, your child swears and you turn off the games console for a while.
Yelling, threatening and smacking don’t work as consequences. These types of consequences don’t help children learn about better behaviour. In families that use these types of consequences, children often keep behaving in challenging ways. And these types of consequences can have long-term negative effects on development.
Putting consequences into action: steps
Here are 3 simple steps for putting consequences into action:
- Stay calm. If you’re calm, your child is more likely to stay calm too, which makes it easier for them to think about their behaviour. If you get angry, your child might also get angry, and this makes things harder for both of you.
- When the behaviour happens, give your child clear instructions and a chance to change their behaviour. For example, ‘Frankie, let Jay have a turn please’. The exception is when a child breaks an important family rule. For example, ‘We touch each other gently in this family. Hitting means you go straight to time-out’.
- Follow through with the consequence. For example, ‘Frankie, because you haven’t taken turns you’ll need to sit out for the next round’. If your child thinks they might be able to get out of a consequence, this strategy become much less powerful.
After the consequence is over, give your child the chance to practise the right behaviour, then praise your child. For example, ‘Great turn-taking! The game is going so smoothly now’.
A clear set of family rules can help with guiding your child’s behaviour in positive ways. Family rules help everyone in your family understand what to do, not just what not to do.
Making consequences work: tips
Use consequences as a response to behaviour
This means using consequences for your child’s behaviour and not using consequences as a response to your child themselves. For example, let your child know the consequence is for hitting or breaking a family rule, not for being a disobedient child. This way your child will feel loved and safe – even when you’re using consequences.
Reserve consequences for children over 3 years
Children younger than 3 don’t really understand consequences, because they often can’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Consequences just feel unfair to them.
Explain consequences ahead of time
If your child knows what to expect and why, they’re more likely to accept consequences and less likely to feel angry about them. For example, ‘When you don’t share your toys, the toys get put away’.
Use consequences fairly, according to children’s needs and abilities
You might use different consequences according to your children’s ages. But if you’ve decided to give your children consequences for challenging behaviour, it’s important to use them the same way for everyone. Even young children will be upset if they see other children being treated differently from them.
Use consequences consistently
If you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect. For example, you might always use a time-out for hitting. You might need to use consequences a few times before your child learns to behave differently. It takes time to learn, but being consistent with consequences will help your child learn faster.
Keep consequences short
Keeping it short means your child doesn’t have to wait long before practising the right behaviour. For example, if you turn off the TV for 10 minutes because children are fighting over the remote control, they quickly get another opportunity to solve the problem in a different way and get praise from you.
If you wait to see if the behaviour stops, it might get worse instead, which makes it harder for you to stay calm.
Give the consequence soon after the behaviour
When you do need to use a consequence, it’s best if the consequence happens as soon as possible after the behaviour.
But it’s best not to give a consequence immediately if you’re feeling very angry, because you might overreact or be too harsh. Instead, say something like ‘I’m feeling angry at the moment. We’ll talk about this again in a couple of minutes when I’m feeling calmer’.
Consequences work well when you usually have plenty of warm and positive interactions with your child. If your child’s behaviour or other things in your life are affecting your interactions with your child or you’re struggling with your child’s behaviour, ask for help. Ask your GP or child and family health nurse for advice and a referral to a counsellor or other professional.